This book, the latest production from the fertile pen of maverick architectural historian John Harris, looks at the reuse of historic architectural features—including stone and brickwork, panelling, chimneypieces, metalwork and decorative paintings. His quarry are the “pickled rooms”; English Jacobean and Georgian panelling and French 18th-century boiseries (carved wooden panelling) that were exported in huge consignments in the early to mid-20th century for re-erection in plutocratic mansions and townhouses, or even company boardrooms, all over America, often undergoing some surprising transformations in the process.
Perhaps the most notorious of all collectors of architectural salvage was the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)—the original of “Citizen Kane”—whose omnivorous appetite for historic features extended to entire hammer-beam roofs, complete Spanish cloisters, and more panelled rooms and chimneypieces than he could have possibly accommodated in his numerous building projects. Indeed, Mr Harris relates that even today, half a century after Hearst’s death and despite the sales which followed his 1938 financial crisis, there are impenetrable high-security warehouses in Brooklyn stacked high with panelling, stonework and chimneypieces.
In Britain, the heyday of architectural salvage was in the early 19th century, when wars and revolutions on the Continent had precipitated a great influx of carved wood and stonework—much of it ecclesiastical and from secularised monasteries and convents in France, Germany and the Low Countries. A thriving trade—called the “Wardour Street Trade”—emerged, supplying antiquarian-minded country house proprietors with curious old carvings for instant panelled parlours and great halls, some genuine old work and some new, all coated in a thick syrupy varnish to resemble “olde oak”. Among the more adventurous and discriminating enthusiasts for salvage were William Bankes of Kingston Lacy, Dorset—who went in for Spanish Cordoba leather and gilded Venetian palace ceilings —Gregory Gregory of Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire —who bought French boiserie and marble elements from Italian and Flemish churches—and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire who deployed a variety of subterfuges at his houses of Chatsworth and Hardwick. Mr Harris has made full use of my lectures—generously credited and with permission—on the activities of these fascinating early 19th-century salvagistes.
But the bulk of his remarkable book is devoted to the transatlantic trade in architectural salvage, starting with Mrs Lawrence’s precocious gift, in 1876, of a complete “Jacobethan” room to the newly opened Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A taste for such rooms was soon established, devotedly fostered by dealers such as Duveen, Litchfield & Co., and Roberson’s, who in around 1925 maintained a permanent display of over 30 complete panelled rooms in their Knightsbridge showrooms ready for despatch. French boiseries were initially preferred by plutocratic Americans, but there was always a place for the handsome sobriety of British woodwork—invariably stripped and pickled to reveal the wood grain. Provenance was important, and museum directors vied with one another to assemble a complete sequence of historical styles—Elizabethan, Jacobean, Stuart, Palladian and Neoclassical. This desire to form a complete chronological display, the influence of overbearing donors and dealers, and the invariably generous proportions of American museum galleries led to audacious alteration, sometimes improved beyond recognition. Mr Harris’s greatest coups include the unmasking of the Woodcote Park Room in Boston, and the Kempshott Park interior at St Louis, both revealed as hybrids, made up from disparate boiled-up elements.
Moving Rooms is a fascinating, passionate book, thickly packed with information. Written in Mr Harris’s authoritative style (complete with engagingly honest footnotes—pxiv, n15: “My card index made in those days was lent to Dr Alan Tait, who lost it”), it includes a useful check-list of known British salvages, as well as appendices devoted to Roberson, Carlhian et Cie, and the great Hearst sale.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The trade in salvages'